3 – Expatriate Writing

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The way I’ve come to perceive my own country has shifted in ways I never expected.
-Brian Blickenstaff


Brian Blickenstaff  is an American journalist living in Germany. After reading “What do Expats think of America?,” reflect on what he terms a “transnational shift” that has occured in his life, and the “shifting perceptions of America” that it evokes.

In your opinion, how might the fluidity of such perceptions influence the themes and style in his writing?


Transatlantic routes resized

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9 thoughts on “3 – Expatriate Writing

  1. Based on Damen’s stages of acculturation and Black’s U-Curve of Cultural Adjustment (Tourist-Survivor-Immigrant-Anomie-Citizen), I think Blickenstaff is at the Survivor phase where he already acknowledges the difference between his home country and the new place he lives in. In this phase people experience the conflicts between their own culture and the foreign culture which often lead to culture shock and homesickness. People might still find their own culture to be the norm, but they also try to accept the new culture. Whether or not those perceptions affect the themes and style in Blickenstaff depends on his ability to overcome the culture shock and cope with the perceptions of his own country. By the time Blickenstaff can successfully overcome the conflict and accept things as they are, those perceptions will not affect the themes and style his writing. However, if Blickenstaff fails this stage, sticks to the perceptions, and takes them to a higher level (stereotyping), there is a possibility that what he takes would influence the themes and style of his writings.

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  2. What Blickenstaff terms “transnational shift” is quite simply the phenomenon that occurs when an individual or, more generally, a subject(ivity) changes its position by re-locating in another country, thereby self-inducing a change within the subject who is, and that is why we love language and words, from then on, subject to another (imagi)nation. Put differently, by finding a new home in one’s non-home-country, the subject’s position is altered both physically and psychologically. If we define discourse as a “set of regulations,” norms, and codes (which is kind of close to its Foucauldian conception, but, at any rate, very useful now), we could just say that the Blickenstaff-termed transnational shift is another way of referring to the difference that moves the subject away from (self-)sameness and familiarity, alters its position toward itself and the world (i.e., the set of the mediated relations, including the very horizon of the self, that is knowable, thinkable, and reflectable), and displaces it toward the unheimlich Other. All this happens to make the subject re-positions itself (its Self) within the unfamiliar, not instantly accessible ImagiNation of the Other, the “Elsewhere,” as Blickenstaff puts it, only to make the subject, in turn, recognize (literally: re-cognize, i.e., transforming alterity into familiarity, reading it anew, if you will) that the relational matrix between sameness and otherness is never fixed; rather, it is always in flux, in a state of “incessant sliding,” to cite Lacan, and, depending on the position from which it is read, the subject finds itself situated differently. Notions and norms, concepts and codes—they all shift with the shift in positionality.

    “It takes time to start to understand a place, though, and I’m not convinced you can ever really know one,” writes Blickenstaff in the closing paragraph. And indeed. If we, once again, take a look at his words, they imply the unclosable (discursive) gap between “a place” and “the place.” While the former is accessible and readable from certain (subject) positions and within certain (ideological) frames, their plurality also makes it apparent that one can never “really” get to know or “truly” have access to something in itself. In other words, everything is always-already A place, which is rendered readable and decodable under specific but continuously altering circumstances, within THE place: language. (Just in parentheses: is it not funny that “blicken” in German refers to seeing and glancing, while “staff” in English to a collective, thus making the author’s name speak, or even spell out, the very concept around which the text is structured? Transnational shift as in glancing at the Other and seeing it within the One, i.e., the otherness of subjectivity that was always-already there but had to be re-cognized via altering one’s position in the world. I cannot stress this enough: words are fabulous. They really are everything.)

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  3. The transnational shift in his writing refers to how perception is changed as a result of leaving one’s county for an extended period of time. Interestingly enough the term (at least for me) evokes that some kind of exchange is going on: the American viewpoint is changed for a German viewpoint of the mother country and of socio-political problems, but I would argue that, based on the article it is not completely true, but describes the influence of the culture of the new country on the previous cultural base. I think this is most discernible in the way Brandon Murry talks about gun control in the article: while he has a changed preference of the solution of gun control, his experience of German gun control is layered onto his experience as an American. I feel like, even with the changed opinions, these are not simply the opinions of a German or an American citizen. The experience and the reasoning is more complex, and different viewpoints are more integrated in the opinions of expats, as it is also said by Clarissa Howe, who admits having a very black-and-white opinion on the US prior to leaving the country, and that this opinion became more saturated. On the other hand, probably because of this saturation, the defensive stance, that Blickenstaff writes about, appears – I believe because of the saturated viewpoint, especially when one sees that the thing that did not work in the home country can be solved in other ways and this way they cannot say “well it is bad but it is like that” and just accept it, one needs to justify the shortcomings of the home country (and consequently, their own identity): “it is bad but it is because it is part of our culture”. I wonder whether this psychological defensiveness of one’s national identity can be overcome – I believe so, but it is probably not an easy shift (most probably it is like integrating the Jungian shadow), and I am not sure what the results can be.
    The transnational shift, to me, seems to be on the other side of the culture shock scale: while that measures how one thinks about the target country after leaving the home country, the transnational shift describes how one thinks about the home country after spending time in the target country. It would be interesting to see if it has any phases or how long does it take for this shift to occur.

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  4. Blickenstaff, in my opinion, starts with paraphrasing culture shock. That is, if not by definition, precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse. My father once visited China and stayed there for a few weeks. After having several business lunches with the Chinese partner company, he noticed that after finishing the meals, most of his Chinese colleagues burp once or twice. How rude they are—he thought himself, silently wiped his mouth, and left. I don’t really know how he came across with the fact, that actually it was him who was rude, and the rest of them—who burped as hard as they could—little exaggeration—were the ones who acted politely, since it is the custom in certain parts of China to show how good the meal was by burping, reassuring the chef and the host, that they are full and enjoyed the meal. The problem here was, that my father was used to different customs, and could not switch immediately from one cultural behavior to another, causing some tenses—to himself and to his Chinese colleagues. He met the second phase of culture shock, that is the shock itself—after the first stage, that is the honeymoon stage, when everything seems to be perfect as if it was a dream. Blickenstaff tells about a similar stage or similar experience at the begging, when the tourist realizes the differences between the two cultures: the one that is currently being explored, and the one that they were born into. With starting this process—continuously contrasting, comparing the two cultures—the perception of our own culture starts to change inevitably. We start to question things that we took for granted up to that point. Meeting another culture widens our perspectives—such a cliché but it is the truth. And, of course, widening perspectives could mean more colors in style if it comes to writing. Uncertainty—of a novel, poem, any piece of work—seems to be much more interesting for readers, since it makes them think twice, and forces them to come up with their own thoughts. In this context, by uncertainty I mean the various aspects of one thing, presented in a literary piece.

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  5. According to Blickenstaff, as I understood, “translational shift” is the altered way to see things through the integration into another culture. And, undoubtedly, living in another culture influences your behavior incredibly. It changes your mindset as, probably, nothing else can do. First, you cannot understand certain things in a foreign culture, some patterns of behavior or thought process. But then you start to see your own culture from the different angle, you start analyzing the world and questioning yourself, why things which have always been around you, are the way they are and not vice versa. Why you have always thought that it was “the norm”. And slowly, and sometimes subconsciously, you’re coming to the simple truth that there is no such a thing as “the norm” in the world. And that is where “third space theory” takes place and you become a new person. Something in between. And, of course, it changes the way you write and think about things a lot.

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  6. According to Blickenstaff, the transnational shift in his writing refers to how perception is changed as a result of leaving one’s county for a period of time. thus, focusing on the concept of culture shock. Personally, now that I live in a different country for more than eight months, I still do not feel that I experienced a culture shock even though there are many differences compared to my country. However, when we talk about expats in America who traveled to work for a period of time, there should be new things experienced like the way people think, Black English, the traditions, the weather…etc.
    being an expat changes the way you see things and enhances your way of writing and motivates you to write and be creative.

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  7. BRIAN BLICKENSTAFF discusses the transnational shift from his perspective in the way of comparison between Germany and the USA. He lived in Germany for two years, and in his case, he encountered an ideological shift within these two years regarding Europe an America as a whole. For example, holding a gun in USA is an ordinary thing while holding a gun in Germany is a rare thing and it is criminalized act, which constitutes the idea in the Europeans’ mentality that America is a dangerous country and the tourist would be killed at any time if he/she ever has gone to the USA, which is not correct. The transnational shift in his case is the cultural shock regarding his home country (America) and (Germany). he is culturally shocked by his home country when he has known that most of the Europeans are thinking of America as a crime scene and he blames American media in the first place, and he believes that Americans are stereotyping themselves.
    in one of the paragraphs, he concluded his experience by saying that “you can ever really know one.”
    and he is right because the world is big and in order to know a country very well you have to coexist its culture for enough time. in other words, you have to be an expat more than a tourist.

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  8. The term transnational shift is closely connected to the discomfort one feels when spending time in a foreign culture, realizing, that in many ways they’ve been following different rules. However, these differences do not have to concern something as fundamental and comprehensive as mentality, religion etc. Often, these are small “shocks”, misunderstandings on public transport or in the local grocery store. When transnational shift brings about a shift in one’s perception on his\her own country, it is a far more problematic subject. The perception of a place is, as I feel, often a complicated concept for the ambiguity of the outsider\insider points of view. One’s perception about his\her homeland is always somewhat biased, often naïve or exaggerating, as it was mentioned in the article, “it is either the best or worse” at everything. After moving to another place this perception undeniably changes, however, from this point, I think, in many ways we start to talk from an outsider’s point of view. We don’t really experience the everyday struggles of the citizens of our home country, our basis of comparison is largely constructed upon our previous memories and the stories of those friends and family members who still live in that country. On the other hand, in our new “home”, there are still many things we see only at the surface level, as we are “foreigners”. These skewed opinions are further complicated by the respective countries’ representation in media, news, TV etc. Therefore, someone like Brian Blickenstaff is in an extremely difficult position when assessing what’s happening in his home country.

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  9. I would say transnational shift is something akin to culture shock, but also a process that takes a longer time to “get over”, and it might be deeper-rooted, focusing on the individual’s home country that they left, whereas culture shock usually refers to their new country. Through transnational shift, the bias towards the home country is reevalutated, as the article also mentions. However, since “reverse culture shock” (especially in the case of longer periods of times spent overseas) is an existing phenomenon, I wonder whether we can talk about a reversed version of transnational shift, when the target country is reevaluted.

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